Author - Rob Gowans, CAS Policy Officer
It’s been a long wait for Universal Credit to arrive. Much has been written about its delayed arrival, IT gremlins and various projections about winners and losers from the new system. Finally, with Universal Credit now live across Scotland, we’re able to see how it works for people who claim it – and there’s a number of practical challenges that need to be addressed.
Our report ‘Learning from Testing Times’ takes a first look at how Universal Credit works in action for people who need support. From what CABs have seen so far, there’s been a long list of teething problems, ranging from people running out of money because of a six-week wait for any payment, being ping-ponged between different benefit claim websites, and running out of phone credit because of an expensive helpline before problems are resolved.
Why is this important? Well, to put this in some context, of the top ten most common issues that people came for advice at their local CAB about last year, five of them related to benefits that will eventually be replaced by Universal Credit, including all of the top three. In Scotland, around 830,000 people claim one of the six ‘legacy benefits’ that will be taken over by Universal Credit, compared to around 25,000 people who currently receive UC. It seems like it’s a matter of when, rather than if, Universal Credit becomes the most common issue that people seek advice on at their CAB.
Most importantly it can mean that people face real hardship. Amongst all the talk of making efficiency savings, it should be remembered that the social security system exists to be a safety net for people who find themselves in a situation where they need some basic financial support. CABs seeing clients who face the choice between eating, heating or paying rent because their benefit payment has not arrived is always a concern, and is where we look to any new system or process to improve.
It’s not all bad news for Universal Credit, though. The principles behind it remain worthy – particularly simplifying the complex benefits system that means many people who are entitled to support don’t claim it. And none of these challenges on their own should completely derail Universal Credit – they can all be fixed, given a bit of attention and political will.
However with Universal Credit just scratching the surface – there are hundreds of thousands of Scots who have yet to move on to it, including people with complex health conditions, carers, families with young children and low paid workers – these challenges need to be addressed before Universal Credit goes much further. The ‘Full Service’ rollout to all claimants is coming over the next year, with Musselburgh and Inverness first up. It’s in everybody’s best interests to make sure CABs don’t face a long queue of clients with Universal Credit problems caused by design or administrative flaws, and that the principles behind UC are matched by a successful reality for citizens.